Thompson, David O'Neal

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THOMPSON, David O'Neal

(b. 13 July 1954 in Shelby, North Carolina), Hall of Fame basketball player known for his high-scoring seasons with North Carolina State University and the Denver Nuggets.

Thompson was the youngest of eleven children of Vellie Thompson, a textile worker, and Ida Gentry, a homemaker. He grew up in modest circumstances near Shelby and attended that town's Crest High School from 1968 to 1971, excelling in basketball and track. The heavily recruited Thompson picked North Carolina (NC) State University at Raleigh over its Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) arch-rival the University of North Carolina. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) assessed NC State a one-year probation for minor recruiting violations involving Thompson.

Thompson enrolled at NC State in autumn 1971. Freshmen were ineligible for varsity play at that time. Instead, he played for the freshman team, averaging more than thirty-five points per game. Thompson declined an invitation to try out for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. NC State served its probation in 1972–1973, Thompson's first varsity season, so could not participate in the NCAA tournament. Despite the apparent lack of incentive, Thompson teamed with the seven-foot, four-inch junior Tommy Burleson to lead the Wolfpack to an undefeated 27–0 season. NC State defeated the highly regarded University of Maryland team three times, including a 76–74 win in the ACC tournament title game.

NC State overcame an early season loss to the perennial champion the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) early in the 1973–1974 season to again go undefeated in the ACC, finishing off its regular season with a 23–1 mark. Nonetheless, NC State needed to win the ACC tournament to receive the league's only bid to the NCAA tournament. It did so by the slimmest margin, edging Maryland in the finals 103–100 in a spectacular overtime contest frequently listed as one of the top college games ever played. NC State won the Eastern Regional despite enduring a scare when Thompson suffered a concussion in the finals against the University of Pittsburgh.

Thompson recovered in time for the Final Four, held the following week in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina. NC State opened against a powerhouse UCLA team hoping to capture its eighth consecutive NCAA title. NC State upset the Bruins and their peerless center Bill Walton 80–77 in two overtimes, with Thompson scoring 28 points. NC State followed up by defeating Marquette University 77–64 for the national title. Thompson scored 21 points in the title game as NC State finished the season 30–1.

Thompson clearly was the best player in the United States in 1975. Several of his teammates slumped, however, and NC State's season ended at 22–6 with an ACC tournament loss to the University of North Carolina. The team declined an invitation to play in the National Invitational Tournament.

Thompson was one of the most honored basketball players in NCAA history. In each of his three varsity seasons (1973, 1974, 1975), he was named the ACC Player of the Year, unanimous All-ACC, Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) All-American, and ACC leading scorer. He was named the AP National Player of the Year for 1974 and 1975, UPI National Player of the Year for 1975, and 1974 Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Thompson led the ACC in scoring three times, ending his varsity career with 2,309 points and a 26.8 points per game average. He scored 57 points against Buffalo in 1975, still a North Carolina State record. NC State went 79–7 during his varsity tenure. A soft-spoken and articulate man, Thompson was one of the first African Americans to become a genuine athletic hero at a major southern institution. He earned a B.S. in sociology from North Carolina State in 1975.

Thompson was the first selection in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and American Basketball Association (ABA) drafts following the 1975 season. He signed with the Denver Nuggets of the ABA after they acquired his draft rights from Virginia. For six seasons he was an outstanding professional player. In his sole ABA season, Thompson was named the Rookie of the Year and a second-team All-ABA. After the dissolution of the ABA, Denver joined the NBA for the 1977 season. Thompson was named a first-team All-NBA in 1977 and 1978. He finished second in the NBA in scoring in the 1978 season, averaging 27.15 points per game. Thompson was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1979 NBA All-Star game after scoring twenty-five points. His 73-point effort on 9 April 1978 against Detroit was the third-highest single-game scoring mark in NBA history, topped only by Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point and 78-point games. Thompson missed half of the 1980 season with injuries, but returned in 1981 to average 25.5 points per game and play in the NBA All-Star game for the fourth time.

Injuries and substance abuse shortened Thompson's professional career. He began using cocaine early in his career and also abused alcohol. Denver traded him to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1982. He entered drug rehabilitation after the 1983 season and again in 1986. On 10 March 1984 Thompson suffered a career-ending knee injury when he was knocked down a flight of stairs in a New York nightclub during an altercation. A domestic violence conviction in 1986 led to probation. When Thompson violated his probation he was sentenced to four months in a minimum-security prison in 1987.

Thompson finally overcame his drug habit in the late 1980s. He then became the director of community relations for the Charlotte (North Carolina) Hornets and a motivational speaker, frequently discussing the perils of drug addiction. He married Cathy Barrow on 31 January 1979; they had two daughters.

Thompson ended his NBA career with an average of 22.1 points per game in 509 games, and averaged 26 points per game in his single ABA season. He made 50.5 percent of his field-goal attempts as a professional and 88.1 percent of his foul shots. He was selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996. Thompson was a spectacular athlete, blessed with quickness, great leaping ability, and a silky grace. In college his vertical leap was measured at forty-four inches, and sportswriters joked that he could take a dollar bill off the top of the backboard and leave change. In a 2001 interview with the Sporting News, the famed player Bill Walton said, "David Thompson was the best college player I ever saw. By far. He was a terrific, terrific sportsman and what was so wonderful was that he played his best in the biggest of games." Thompson's natural athleticism, combined with refined basketball skills and a fierce competitive drive, made him one of the best basketball players of his generation.

Thompson's college career is covered in Ron Morris, ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History (1988); Norman Sloan, Confessions of a Coach (1991); Douglas Herakovich, Pack Pride: The History of NC State Basketball (1994); and Peter C. Bjarkman, ACC: Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball (1996). An excellent magazine article on Thompson is Mike Lupica, "David Thompson, Back to Earth," Esquire (Mar. 1990).

Jim Sumner

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